John Kimball started working on Renewable Energy in the Fall of 1973 when the Arab Oil Embargo created huge gasoline lines throughout the U.S.
John Kimball’s Life in Solar spanning over 40 years (in his own words)
I started in the renewable energy business almost 40 years ago. I found a solar oven in the summer of 1973 in the desert at an abandoned gold mining camp near the Mexican border in Arizona. I put it in a closet and forgot about it. 4 months later, in Oct. of 1973, war broke out again in the Middle East. There was an oil embargo placed against the U.S.A. by Saudi Arabia. The price of oil and gasoline skyrocketed. There was a gasoline shortage. People all over the country had to wait hours for gasoline. They were even stealing it from other cars. It wasn’t until then, that I remembered the strange solar contraption I had found out in the desert. Wondering if it really worked, I set it up in the backyard at my home in Tucson. The temperature went to 350 degrees F in 5 minutes. I fried bacon, made fajitas and cooked a steak. It was then that I started The Tucson Free Energy Center.
Luckily, the American Solar Energy Society kept its entire research and historical information at Arizona State University, 120 miles north of Tucson at ASU’s Library in Phoenix. I made many trips there to do research and soon published a book on every possible use of solar energy, loaded with 35 photos of small solar power systems: photovoltaic, refrigerators, water pumping, water heating; even air conditioners and much more. It was a lucky connection between myself and Dr. Erick Farber, one of the most famous men in solar energy that got me started. He was a Professor at the Dept. of Engineering at the University of Florida in Gainesville. I also owe Dr. Aden and Majorie Mienel from the U of A in Tucson for their support and valuable insight into solar energy in those early days.
At that time the Mienel’s had been asked by the President of the United States to design a parabolic trough thermal solar power system to be used in the desert of Arizona to generate electricity. I was way out of my league, but a great friend, supporter, and advisor in my youth kept pushing me forward because I told her it was what I really wanted to do, and that I truly believed it would work. Her name was Mrs. Cele Peterson.
Thru my father Bill Kimball, Senate Majority Leader in Arizona and my brother Richard Kimball, Arizona Corporation Commission Chairman, I was able to obtain a position with U.S. Congressman Morris K. Udall (D-AZ) in his Congressional Office in Washington, DC. Then I worked for US Congressmen George E. Brown, Jr. (D- CA). In those 4 years I had the opportunity to work on energy legislation on Capitol Hill.
During this time I published 2 books “Renewable Energy Education at California Universities and Junior Colleges” and then the same thing for the entire country. They were published and distributed by the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) in Golden, Colorado.
After 4 years in Washington, I returned to Arizona to work for the Arizona Solar Energy Commission and for Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt, who later became Secretary of the Interior. I worked on two books there on “Solar Energy Use for Home Builder’s” and “How To Buy A Solar Water Heating System”. I gave over 40 seminars to approx. 6000 Arizonan’s. There I met Mr. Bob McGinnis, one of the Commissioners, who was the President of Photowatt International Inc., a Tempe, Arizona based PV manufacturer. It was one of the first in the U.S. As the U.S. and Latin American Sales Manager, I worked side by side with the best engineering, manufacturing, and designers at the time.
Then I worked for Photocomm International, Inc. in Phoenix, the largest PV Distributor in the U.S. at that time
It was then that I requested an interview with Kyocera in San Diego. At that time, there were only two people working in Kyocera America’s Solar Division. I was hired to work for this amazing company. Their corporate philosophy is “perfection” in everything they do. After being in San Diego for 3 years, they offered me a position as the East Coast and Latin American Sales Manager and I moved to Miami to set up a new branch office. After 3 years there, I began to receive calls from the Dominican Republic and Haiti because they were having daily power outages of 20 hours every day. I tried to help them with PV systems but they were just too expensive.
It was at this time I got a call from the owner of Trace Engineering Co., Steve Johnson. They had developed a back-up power inverter, or UPS for homes and businesses. It operated the same as a UPS for a computer. If a power failure occurred it automatically switched to battery mode till the power came back on and then recharged the batteries. Except instead of weighing 5 lbs they weighed 500 lbs. due to the large battery bank. Steve called one day and said “hey John why don’t you just sell them our inverter/charger instead of the solar panels”. This would reduce the cost to a fraction of a solar system’s and get the same result. I immediately asked Kyocera Corp. V.P. of Sales to start offering these systems but he wasn’t interested. So I took a chance left Kyocera and started Sun Electronics in 1989. I was allowed to be a distributor for Kyocera’s solar panels and I also began selling Trace inverter/charger back-up power systems.
With virtually no competition we sold over 250,000 systems throughout the Caribbean Basin over 5 years. It was an incredible business experience. After 7 years the UPS market became saturated and we had turned our attention back to photovoltaic systems.
Over the next 10 years we purchased and sold all the major brands with good success including many megawatts of Kyocera modules. However, because modules were so very expensive at that time (as much as $4.00/watt and the off grid international community we wanted to serve, had absolutely zero incentives, we began looking for deals and buying other less expensive brands so we could expand into these markets especially in the Caribbean, and Latin America. Solarex, Photowatt, Astropower, General Electric, BP Solar, Solar World, REC, Suntech, and Candadian Solar all understood this and began offering us not only their Perfect Grade A modules but also their much less expensive overstocked, discontinued sizes, frameless, test modules, modules with tiny discolorations, micro cracks or teeny chips on a couple of cells, etc.
These were generally called Grade B but many still had the warranty and full certifications e.g. 25 years, UL, ETL, TUV. We found we could get them at less than half the price! Having worked in an actual factory at Photowatt International in Arizona for several years I was fully aware of what I was buying and never doubted the reliability or value of these modules. You see my attitude toward solar panels is different than everyone else that sells solar panels. To me they are about as different as auto glass. In other words they were all basically made the same: anodized aluminum frame, extremely strong tempered glass, rock silicon crystal cells laminated to the glass with state of the art EVA and covered with a water proof moisture barrier of Tedlar. The result is all crystalline solar panels have a lifetime of between 30 and 50 years. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) Charts Of Best Research-Cell Efficiencies shows that not much has changed since I worked at Photowatt in the early 80’s when it was at 16% to 21% today. Actual module efficiency are even less, of course.
Today over half the modules that we sell are Grade B. In the last 15 years, I can only estimate, but I believe we have sold nearly a 1,000 – 40 ft. containers of them or 100MWp, the equivalent of 500,000 – 200 watt modules.
The accomplishments of Sun Electronics that I am most proud of are the following:
1. It has given hundreds of thousands of people the opportunity to have electric power with back-up power systems instead of being in the dark or having to resort to loud, dirty and dangerous diesel generators.
2. It has given tens of thousands of people the ability to afford clean solar electric power systems avoiding nuclear, oil, coal and utility transmission lines .
3. It has enabled our customers to serve as examples and teachers to their families, friends and others in their community and their countries, that people can feel totally confident using clean and silent solar energy and independent back-up power systems.
4. And finally, my favorite, we have helped people to have a place outside the crowded, crime infested cities, out of the bumper to bumper traffic jams, the air and noise pollution so they can live with and in the middle of nature, anywhere the Sun shines. I’ve seen these beautiful homes small and large, the animals, the gardens, in the mountains and near the sea. You can see that these people love their homes, feel good about the environment they live in and appreciate all that we have been given. Most of the off-grid solar homes are unique in design and most often were built by the home owner themselves. I call them modern day pioneers. However, they are hardly ever that far away from being able to return to town after all it has its excellent benefits as well.
As far as I’m concerned, anyone who uses or helps to promote solar energy whether teachers, politicians, home owners, dealers, distributors, installers, project developers, manufacturers, researchers, governments, scientists, etc. can only be helping the rest of the world and that’s a nice thing and quite honestly it’s fun too.
The cost of nuclear and fossil fuel generated electricity will never stop increasing and for some, it’s already as expensive now as installing a solar system, e.g. almost every island nation in the world. I think we can all agree that its more likely that we will be forced sooner or later by our own mistakes to use much more solar generated electricity than ever before. The magic utility cost of 40¢/kWh will be the beginning of the end for these fuels everywhere the Sun shines.